Going Deep

Aquariums are more popular than ever. Mysterious and seductive, they tap into our primal desire for the sea. Oh, and they're also a heck of a fun way to spend an afternoon.


Jeff Swanagan runs the 8 million-gallon Georgia Aquarium, with its symphonic harp music for the jelly tank and piped-in percussion for the freshwater exhibits. The massive new Atlanta attraction boasts two whale sharks with the Honeymooner names Ralph and Norton.

"People won't leave the big tank," he says. "We expected them to stay in the aquarium for four hours, but what we're finding is they stay for six hours."

Beyond the looming appeal of Ralph and Norton, why are people so in love with aquariums?

"You know, it's that quote," says Swanagan.

"If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water," said poet and scientist Loren Eiseley.

The quest, then, is to bottle the magic, sell it and somehow keep it alive. The history of aquariums is deep and their appeal is varied: a marinade of science, economics and show business.

Ancient Romans (leave it to them) kept large, showy fish ponds stocked with eels - they were into eels. The Chinese favored goldfish, keeping the gaudy ornamentals in large glasses or vases of water.

In the Middle Ages, castle moats were built not only for defense but also as fish preserves. These could well be considered the earliest aquariums.

Later, with Darwinian curiosity and an assist from Jules Verne's deep-sea imagination, modern aquaria were hatched in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. The first public aquarium opened in 1853 in Regents Park, London. In 1856, none other than P.T. Barnum lured an army of American admirers to view beluga whales in a center-stage tank.

They were a mega-hit. Aquariums were on a roll.

"Most people don't get below the surface of the water," says William Braker, director emeritus of Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, home to a 75-year-old lungfish named Granddad. "We're providing the general population animals they never in the world have seen before."

Now, more than 50 public aquariums (not including smaller facilities too numerous to count) operate, expensively, in the United States.

Friday, Baltimore's National Aquarium, a pioneer in a modern aquarium boom, premieres its first major addition - an Australian exhibit. Step right up folks, see death adders, crocodiles and spitting archerfish! Watch fruit bats swoop! See a "living fossil" called a lungfish!

So, lights down, music up. Show time.

"Aquariums are really theater, when you think about it," says Jack Cover, general curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The Hampden native has been overseeing the creation of the Australian exhibit.

As a boy, his first aquarium experience was the National Aquarium in Washington - oddly located in the basement of the U.S. Department of Commerce building. Cover came face to face with a turtle not normally seen in, say, Hampden. "It was like hair standing on the back of my neck." The tanks' glass was cool to the touch, the aquarium dark and as promising as any theater just before a feature presentation. The boy was under the sea - while safe and dry.

"It's the perspective you get. It's just that much more personal," Cover says.

Like about every other kid in the 1960s, Cover asked for a home aquarium - you remember the ones with gravel, a slate bottom and aeration tube rigged through a tacky sunken ship or treasure chest. The usual tenants were neon tetras, angelfish, kissing gouramis, barbs, mollies. "You had the mollies breeding, and then you had the angelfish eating the mollies," Cover remembers. And you had to have sucker fish to vacuum up the algae.

His little home aquarium, in a way, evolved into the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where visitors can experience life aquatic with an eye toward its theater, mystery, poetry. Like a museum, it's easy to rush through an aquarium - hustling past shoaling, peeved jack as if they were Monets from the artist's London period.

"Many gallery-owners (or aquarium-goers) move along so fast, that a painting (or a fish) doesn't even have the chance to clear its throat before its visitor is gone," writes marine biologist Todd Newberry in an essay for Aquarium, a book of photographs of the nation's aquariums.

"I am not after a great discovery," Newberry says of his aquarial visits. "I am after a pleasant afternoon."

In the "Atlantic Shelf" exhibit of Baltimore's aquarium, for one example, there is reason to loiter. The sturgeon, gar and clearnose skates seem to make room for the sheepshead - whose throat, if timed and angled right, visitors can look into as it levitates. Stare it down all you want, but the sheepshead will never blink.

In other tanks, there are living paintings of Picasso triggerfish, yellow tangs, anemones with their party fezzes, the humphead cichlid and giant Pacific octopus. An aquarium legend says octopi squeeze out of their tanks at night, slink into other tanks and munch away, leaving fish bones on the floor for staff to discover the next day. Cameras reportedly have caught octopi in the act.

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